Stare Decisis for Interpretive Methods?

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Category: Judges & Judicial Process, Legal Scholarship, Public, U.S. Supreme Court
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Supreme CourtAlthough the Supreme Court decides dozens of cases every year, it has never decided how to decide those cases. That is, the Court has never adopted a governing approach to constitutional interpretation. Instead, the justices seem to bounce from one method to the next, even when considering the same subject matter. What explains this methodological pluralism? Why doesn’t the Court consider itself bound under the doctrine of stare decisis not only to follow the substantive results of earlier constitutional cases, but also the methodological tools it used in getting there?

Chad Oldfather has a new paper on SSRN that explores the answers to these questions, Methodological Pluralism and Constitutional Interpretation. Here is the abstract: Read more »

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Unanimous Supreme Court in Heimeshoff Permits Contractually-Based SOLs in ERISA Denial of Benefit Cases

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Category: Labor & Employment Law, Public, U.S. Supreme Court
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CourtThis morning, the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in Heimeshoff v. Hartford Life & Accidental Life Ins. Co., concerning statute of limitation accrual issues for benefit claims under Section 502(a)(1)(B) of ERISA.

The Court unanimously held that Hartford’s Long Term Disability Plan’s requirement that any suit to recover benefits be filed within three years after “proof of loss” is due is enforceable.  More specifically, “[a]bsent a controlling statute to the contrary, a participant and a plan may agree by contract to a particular limita­tions period, even one that starts to run before the cause of action accrues, as long as the period is reasonable.”  Causes of action for benefits under ERISA do not start to accrue until a final internal appeal decision.  Because Heimeshoff failed to file a claim for long-term disability ben­efits with Hartford within the contractual SOL period, the Court concluded her claim was rightfully denied by Hartford.

While ERISA does not provide a statute of limitations for denial of benefit claims, many plan administrators have in place a contractual 3-year limitations period like Hartford’s.  Read more »

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Much ERISA Fun at the Supreme Court Today: Heimeshoff and Benefit SOL Accrual Issues

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Category: Labor & Employment Law, Public, U.S. Supreme Court
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Supreme_CourtOK, hold onto your seats for some flat-out ERISA law excitement. This morning, the United States Supreme Court heard oral argument in Heimeshoff v. Hartford Life & Accidental Insurance Co. [Briefs at SCOTUSblog], concerning statute of limitation accrual issues for benefit claims under Section 502(a)(1)(B) of ERISA.

RossRunkel.com, as always, gets to the heart of the matter (which is really impressive when you consider it is ERISA after all):

Heimeshoff’s disability policy, administered by Hartford, says that a court suit for wrongful denial of benefits has to be filed within three years of when the claimant files a proof of loss with the plan administrator.

That can be tough, given the fact that it’s possible for the three-year period to begin to run before the claimant has gone through the administrative procedure that must be followed before bring a suit. I suppose it’s even possible in some cases that the three years would run out before the claimant got a final denial. Read more »

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New “Marquette Lawyer” Magazine Offers Insights from Paul Clement

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Category: Education & Law, Federal Law & Legal System, Federalism, Health Care, Legal Practice, Marquette Law School, Public, Speakers at Marquette, U.S. Supreme Court
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Paul Clement has argued some 70 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. He was solicitor general of the United States and now, in private practice, continues to present arguments in some of the most important cases of our time.

In the cover story in the new “Marquette Lawyer” magazine, Clement discusses some of the cases he’s been involved in, particularly the momentous Affordable Care Act decision of 2012 and several national security cases. He talks about what it is like to make an argument before the Court and especially what’s needed to prepare for an argument.

Clement’s thoughts were offered during his visit to Marquette Law School on March 4, 2013, when he delivered the annual E. Harold Hallows Lecture and held a special “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” event for law students. (Video of the lecture is available here and of the “On the Issues” here.)

Also in the new issue, an article describes the complex legacy of a class action lawsuit challenging how Milwaukee Public Schools deals with students with special education needs. Even as plaintiffs lost the case in court, they succeeded in influencing changes that they favored.

Professor Phoebe Williams is featured in a profile story in the magazine, and the success of the Law School’s faculty blog is marked with a compilation of pieces written by Professor Daniel D. Blinka; Mike Gousha, distinguished fellow in law and public policy; and State Public Defender Kelli S. Thompson, L’96 . Read more »

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Are There Three Factions on the United States Supreme Court?

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Category: Federal Law & Legal System, Public, U.S. Supreme Court
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SCtThe way that the media reports on the Supreme Court, one gets the impression that the Court is divided into two intractable four-justice blocs, with Justice Anthony Kennedy deciding most of the cases by swaying back and forth between the two blocs.

(Under this interpretation, the conservative block is made up of Chief Justice John Roberts, as well as Justices Alito, Scalia and Thomas, while the liberal bloc includes Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Kagan, and Sotomayor.)

Using data compiled from the SCOTUS blog regarding the Court’s 5-4 decisions since the appointment of Chief Justice Roberts, the Court actually divides into three three-justice blocs: Read more »

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Supreme Court Reaffirms “Categorical Approach” in Applying Armed Career Criminal Act

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Category: Federal Criminal Law & Process, Federal Sentencing, Public, U.S. Supreme Court
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Has Congress ever made the federal courts do more work to little so good effect than it did when it passed the Armed Career Criminal Act in 1984? The ACCA imposes a fifteen-year mandatory minimum on certain federal defendants who have three prior convictions for a violent felony or serious drug crime, which are defined terms in the statute. The basic application problem is that we have fifty different state criminal codes, and state legislatures never saw fit to amend their laws so as to fit their crime definitions to the ACCA terminology. As a result, figuring out which state convictions count as ACCA predicates has consumed — and continutes to consume — an enormous amount of judicial time and effort. A few lines of statutory text have generated a marvelously intricate, uncertain, and ever-changing body of jurisprudence.

The Supreme Court offered its latest foray into the ACCA quagmire yesterday in Descamps v. United States (No. 11-9540). At issue was whether Descamps’s prior burglary conviction in California could be used as a predicate for the fifteen-year ACCA mandatory minimum. The statutory definition of “violent felony” does include “burglary,” but the Court has previously held that not all burglary convictions count; rather, the crime of conviction must have the elements of “generic burglary” — if a state has chosen to define the crime of burglary in an unusually broad manner, then convictions of burlgary in that state may not be treated as burglary convictions for ACCA purposes.

And it turns out that California does have an idiosyncratic burglary definition.  Read more »

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So Long, Harris — Breyer’s on Board

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Category: Criminal Law & Process, Federal Criminal Law & Process, Federal Sentencing, Public, U.S. Supreme Court
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Yesterday, in a long-anticipated move, the Supreme Court finally overturned its 2002 decision in Harris v. United States. The new decision in Alleyne v. United States extended jury-trial rights to mandatory minimum sentences. Justice Breyer’s “flip” from his position in Harris made the difference.

In Apprendi v. New Jersey (2000), the Court held that a defendant has a right to a jury trial regarding the facts that may increase the maximum sentence to which he is exposed. Breyer dissented in Apprendi and has steadfastly maintained ever since that Apprendi was wrongly decided.

Two years later, in Harris, the Court decided not to extend Apprendi to the facts that raise a defendant’s minimum sentence. Breyer was part of the 5-4 majority in Harris, but stated in a concurring opinion that he could see no reason to distinguish increasing the maximum from increasing the minimum. Thus, Breyer’s vote in Harris was simply another vote against Apprendi. This immediately raised the expectation that some day, when Breyer was ready to give up the fight against Apprendi, he would be willing to overturn Harris.

Some day has come.  Read more »

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SCOTUS: No Automatic Reversal of Conviction When Judge Improperly Participated in Plea Discussions

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Category: Criminal Law & Process, Federal Criminal Law & Process, Public, Seventh Circuit, U.S. Supreme Court
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Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11 sets forth various requirements and prohibitions relating to guilty pleas, including a ban on judges participating in plea discussions. If there is a violation, Rule 11(h) specifies that a “variance from the requirements of this rule is harmless error if it does not affect substantial rights” — no harm, no foul. However, at least two circuits have adopted a rule of automatic vacatur of the guilty plea if the judge participated in plea discussions. Other circuits, including the Seventh, have applied the general 11(h) harmless error rule in these situations.

Earlier today, in United States v. Davila (No. 12-167), the U.S. Supreme Court unamimously resolved the circuit split in favor of the general harmless error rule. As the Court saw it, the legal question was an easy one: “[N]either Rule 11 itself, not the Advisory Committee’s commentary on the Rule singles out any instructions [in Rule 11] as more basic than others. And Rule 11(h), specifically designed to stop automatic vacaturs, calls for across-the-board application of the harmless-error prescription . . . .”

The Court declined to adopt any bright-line rules regarding the application of the harmless-error rule: “Our essential point is that particular facts and circumstances matter.” Having determined that the lower court should have applied the harmless-error rule, the Court chose to remand for further consideration of the “particular facts and circumstances.” At the same time, the Court did say, “Had Davila’s guilty plea followed soon after the Magistrate Judge told Davila that pleading guilty be the ‘best advice’ a lawyer could give him, this case may not have warranted our attention.” The suggestion seems to be that a guilty plea entered “soon after” the judge recommended such a course of action would pretty clearly not fall into the category of harmless error. What made Davila’s case more difficult was the three-month delay between the Rule 11 violation and the guilty plea.

Cross posted at Life Sentences.

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SCOTUS: Guidelines Amendments Trigger Ex Post Facto Protections

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Category: Criminal Law & Process, Federal Criminal Law & Process, Federal Sentencing, Public, U.S. Supreme Court
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So just how advisory are the “advisory” federal sentencing guidelines? That was the central question in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision earlier today in Peugh v. United States, which held that guidelines amendments resulting in harsher recommended sentences are limited by the Ex Post Facto Clause of the Constitution.

The Court converted the federal sentencing guidelines from mandatory to advisory in 2005, but left unanswered many important questions about what exactly it means for the guidelines to be “advisory.” Several of these questions were answered in a trilogy of 2007 decisions, which effectively established a new and unique sentencing system for the federal courts. Although sentencing judges are not required to follow the guidelines, the Supreme Court did put a thumb on the scales in favor of guidelines sentences. Dissenting justices objected that this kinda-sorta advisory system violated the Sixth Amendment, but to no avail.

The new system also raised Ex Post Facto Clause issues, which divided the lower courts. Peugh nicely illustrates the problem.  Read more »

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Habeas Roundup: SCOTUS (Slightly) Eases Petitioners’ Paths

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Category: Criminal Law & Process, Public, U.S. Supreme Court
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The U.S. Supreme Court has issued a flurry of habeas corpus decisions in the past two weeks.  The habeas petitioner won in two of the cases and lost in the third.  There are no blockbusters in the group, but habeas fans may find hope in two of the decisions that long-awaited breakthroughs may be in the works.

One that will be welcomed by habeas fans is McQuiggin v. Perkins (No. 12-126).  Perkins was convicted of murder in state court, with the judgment becoming final in 1997.  More than eleven years later, Perkins filed a federal habeas corpus petition, alleging that he received unreasonably poor representation by his trial counsel.  The petition plainly violated the one-year statute of limitations for habeas petitions, but Perkins sought to get around the statute by presenting evidence that he was actually innocent of the crime of which he was convicted.  The Supreme Court has long recognized that actual innocence is an exception to the procedural default rule, which normally bars federal courts from considering habeas claims that were not timely raised in state court.  Perkins argued that there should also be an actual-innocence exception to the statute of limitations, and the Supreme Court agreed in a 5-4 decision.

Does this new exception threaten to eviscerate the statute of limitations?   Read more »

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The Eighth Amendment and Life Without Parole for Adults

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My new article, “Not Just Kid Stuff? Extending Graham and Miller to Adults,” is now available on SSRN. Here’s the abstract:

The United States Supreme Court has recently recognized new constitutional limitations on the use of life-without-parole (LWOP) sentences for juvenile offenders, but has not clearly indicated whether analogous limitations apply to the sentencing of adults. However, the Court’s treatment of LWOP as a qualitatively different and intrinsically more troubling punishment than any other sentence of incarceration does provide a plausible basis for adults to challenge their LWOP sentences, particularly when they have been imposed for nonviolent offenses or on a mandatory basis. At the same time, the Court’s Eighth Amendment reasoning suggests some reluctance to overturn sentencing practices that are in widespread use or otherwise seem to reflect deliberate, majoritarian decisionmaking. This Essay thus suggests a balancing test of sorts that may help to account for the Court’s varied Eighth Amendment decisions in noncapital cases since 1991. The Essay concludes by considering how this balancing approach might apply to the mandatory LWOP sentence established by 21 U.S.C. §841(b)(1)(A) for repeat drug offenders.

The article will appear in print in a forthcoming symposium issue of the Missouri Law Review devoted to the Supreme Court’s year-old decision in Miller v. Alabama.

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SCOTUS Weighs in on Forced Blood Draws in DUI Cases

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Category: Criminal Law & Process, Public, U.S. Supreme Court, Wisconsin Criminal Law & Process
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In the wake of today’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Missouri v. McNeely, DUI defense attorneys across the land are doing the “happy dance.”  Prosecutors (both state and federal) on the other hand are rending their garments and hair trying to figure out how to deal with the high court’s ruling that forced blood draws in most DUI cases will now require warrants, and the flood of “refusals” sure to follow as the implications of the case filter out to the public.

Wisconsin’s approach, first established in 1993 in State v. Bohling and then reinforced in 2004 in State v. Faust had been to allow warrantless blood draws in drunk driving cases after several criteria were met, including the presence of  probable cause for the officer to believe the driver under investigation had indeed been driving under the influence of alcohol. The key factor that drove the Wisconsin interpretation was the fact that the blood alcohol level of a drunk driving suspect is continually shifting and dissipating from the time the driver is apprehended, and the extra time it takes to procure a warrant incontrovertibly causes BAC evidence to be lost.

Wisconsin’s rationale had recently served as a kind of dividing line in the national debate about warrantless blood draws.  Read more »

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